Sweden extends virus restrictions; Danes likely to end them

Protesters gather to demonstrate against the coronavirus measures including the vaccine pass, in Stockholm, on Saturday. (AP)
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Updated 26 January 2022

Sweden extends virus restrictions; Danes likely to end them

  • Denmark was expected to announce that it no longer considers COVID-19 as “a socially critical disease” as of next month and will remove most restrictions
  • “We have an extremely record high spread of infection,” Sweden's Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren said

COPENHAGEN, Denmark: Sweden announced Wednesday that several coronavirus restrictions will be extended for another two weeks.
Meanwhile neighboring Denmark was expected to announce that it no longer considers COVID-19 as “a socially critical disease” as of next month and will remove most restrictions.
“We have an extremely record high spread of infection,” Sweden’s Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren said. “The assessment is that existing measures need to remain in place for another two weeks.”
“If the situation allows it, the restrictions will be lifted after that,” she said.
Karin Tegmark Wisell, head of Sweden’s Public Health Agency, said the reasoning for extending the restrictions is that they expect a decline in cases in a couple of weeks. She said the Scandinavian country had 270,000 new infections in the past seven days and that “our assessment is that, during this period, at least half a million can fall ill per week.”
In Sweden which has previously stood out among European nations for its comparatively hands-off response to the pandemic, has ordered cafes, bars and restaurants to close at 11 p.m., urged people to work from home when possible and said distance learning was an option in higher education to try to combat rising COVID-19 infections.
Denmark, meanwhile, is heading in the opposition direction.
In a letter Tuesday to the Danish lawmakers, Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said he wants to follow the recommendations by Parliament’s Epidemic Commission so that the “categorization of COVID-19 as a socially critical disease will be abolished as of Feb. 1.”
The letter said “this is a new epidemic situation in which a high and increasing infection does not to the same extent as previously translate into hospitalizations.” The letter was obtained by The Associated Press on Wednesday ahead of a planned press conference with Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
It was not immediately clear what restrictions Danes will end but they likely will include the digital health pass, which now must be used to enter museums, nightclubs, cafes, party buses and to be seated indoors in restaurants.
In Denmark, people above 15 must also flash the pass when attending outdoor events where the capacity exceeds 2,000.
In Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin tweeted that “the government will assess the necessity of (the) restrictions” and “should consider opening low-risk cultural and sports events with a COVID pass and extending the opening hours of restaurants on a quicker schedule than was previously estimated.”


Sudan gears up for mass protest against generals

Updated 30 June 2022

Sudan gears up for mass protest against generals

  • Sudan has been roiled by near-weekly protests as the country’s economic woes have deepened since army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan seized power last year

KHARTOUM: Activists in Sudan have called for mass rallies Thursday to demand the reversal of an October military coup that prompted foreign governments to slash aid, deepening a chronic economic crisis.
The protests come on the anniversary of a previous coup in 1989, which toppled the country’s last elected civilian government and ushered in three decades of iron-fisted rule by general Omar Al-Bashir.
They also come on the anniversary of 2019 protests demanding that the generals, who had ousted Bashir in a palace coup earlier that year, cede power to civilians.
Those protests led to the formation of the mixed civilian-military transitional government which was toppled in last year’s coup.
Security was tight in the capital Khartoum on Thursday despite the recent lifting of a state of emergency imposed after the coup.
An AFP correspondent said Internet and phone lines had been disrupted since the early hours, a measure the Sudanese authorities often impose to prevent mass gatherings.
Sudan has been roiled by near-weekly protests as the country’s economic woes have deepened since army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan seized power last year.
More than 100 people have been killed in protest-related violence, according to UN figures, as the military cracked down on the anti-coup movement.
“June 30 is our way to bring down the coup and block the path of any fake alternatives,” said the Forces for Freedom and Change, an alliance of civilian groups whose leaders were ousted in the coup.
Activists have called for “million-strong” rallies to mark the “earthquake of June 30.”
Small-scale demonstrations took place in the run-up to call for a huge turnout on Thursday.
UN special representative Volker Perthes called on the security forces to exercise restraint.
“Violence against protesters will not tolerated,” he said in a statement, adding that nobody should “give any opportunity to spoilers who want to escalate tensions in Sudan.”
The foreign ministry criticized the UN envoy’s comments, saying they were built on “assumptions” and “contradict his role as facilitator” in troubled talks on ending the political crisis.
Alongside the African Union and east African bloc IGAD, the United Nations has been attempting to broker talks between the generals and civilians, but they have been boycotted by all the main civilian factions.
The UN has warned that the deepening economic and political crisis threatens to push one third of the country’s population of more than 40 million toward life-threatening food shortages.


Russia pulls forces from Snake Island after ship with 7,000 tons of grain leaves Ukraine port

A ship carrying 7,000 tons of grain has sailed from Ukraine’s port of Berdyansk. (File/AFP)
Updated 9 min 1 sec ago

Russia pulls forces from Snake Island after ship with 7,000 tons of grain leaves Ukraine port

  • The Russian defense ministry said the withdrawal was a “goodwill gesture” to allow Kyiv to export agricultural products

 Russia said Thursday it had pulled its forces from Ukraine’s Snake Island, calling it a “goodwill gesture” to allow Kyiv to export agricultural products.
“On June 30, as a gesture of goodwill, the Russian armed forces completed their tasks on Snake Island and withdrew a garrison stationed there,” the defense ministry said in a statement.
The announcement came after Ukraine had launched several raids on Russians forces on the Black Sea island.
The Russian defense ministry said the withdrawal was aimed at demonstrating the world that “Russia is not impeding UN efforts to organize a humanitarian corridor to ship agricultural products from Ukraine.”
Moscow added that the “ball is now in Ukraine’s court,” accusing the pro-Western country of having still not demined its Black Sea coast.
A ship carrying 7,000 tons of grain has sailed from Ukraine’s occupied port of Berdyansk, the region’s Moscow-appointed official had said earlier on Thursday, marking the first grain shipment since the start of hostilities.
“After numerous months of delay, the first merchant ship has left the Berdyansk commercial port, 7,000 tons of grain are heading toward friendly countries,” Evgeny Balitsky, the head of the pro-Russia administration, said on Telegram.
Russia’s Black Sea ships “are ensuring the security” of the journey he said, adding that the Ukrainian port had been de-mined.
Berdyansk is a port city in the region of Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine.
Ukraine has accused Russia and its allies of stealing its grain, contributing to a global food shortage caused by grain exports blocked in Ukrainian ports.
The southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have been largely under Russia’s control since the first weeks of Moscow’s military intervention, and are now being forcefully integrated into Russia’s economy.


Afghan pilgrim bicycling to Makkah reaches Saudi Arabia by air

Updated 30 June 2022

Afghan pilgrim bicycling to Makkah reaches Saudi Arabia by air

  • Noor Mohammad, 48, departed from his home in Ghazni province in early May
  • He was stranded in Iran after failing to obtain Iraqi visa to continue journey by land

KABUL: A pilgrim from southeastern Afghanistan, who became a social media sensation when he embarked on a bicycle journey to Makkah last month, has reached Saudi Arabia, Afghan authorities said on Wednesday, after his expedition took a series of unexpected turns, including a sponsored flight.

Noor Mohammad departed from his home in Layeq village, in the Qarabagh district of Ghazni province in early May, planning to cover more than 6,000 kilometers to reach the holy city of Islam by July and perform Hajj.

As he cycled through Afghanistan, a Taliban scholar offered him assistance in getting a plane ticket, but the 48-year-old refused, wanting to go the extra mile in fulfilling the sacred obligation.

Little did he know that soon the help would be needed when after three weeks he got stranded in Iran, trying to obtain an Iraqi visa in the border city of Khorramshahr.

“My Afghan friends promised to get me Iraq’s visa there,” Mohammad told Arab News, as he described his further attempts to get a Kuwaiti visa instead. Again, to no avail.

That was when he decided to reach out to the scholar.

“I had no other way. I contacted Shaikh Hammasi through WhatsApp,” he said. “He introduced me to an Afghan businessman who helped with the stay in Iran and return back to Kabul.”

A screengrab from a May 8, 2022, video shows Noor Mohammad departing for Makkah by bike from Layeq village, in the Qarabagh district of Ghazni, Afghanistan. (Social media)

In Kabul, he was immediately accepted for a Hajj preparation course, where officials took care of his departure. His flight was reportedly covered by acting Interior Minister Serajuddin Haqqani, a close aide of Anas Haqqani — the minister’s brother and senior Taliban leader — told Arab News.

“The ministry of Hajj processed my passport on an urgent basis,” Mohammad said, just days before leaving for Saudi Arabia.

He flew from Kabul on Tuesday, after all his travel documents were processed.

“His name was put on the first flight after that,” Mawlawi Israrulhaq, an official at the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, said. “He traveled to Jeddah from where he will join other Afghan Hajjis in Makkah.”

Mohammad was preparing for his flight days after a deadly earthquake wreaked havoc in eastern Afghanistan, killing an estimated 1,150 people last week.

He has been praying for the victims and said he would remember them too when he reached Makkah.

“As soon as I get to Makkah, I will pray to Allah to make it easy for the families who lost loved ones and their houses,” he added. “I am going to ask him to solve all problems of Afghans.”


Russia steps up attacks in Ukraine after landmark NATO summit

Updated 40 sec ago

Russia steps up attacks in Ukraine after landmark NATO summit

  • Putin: Russia will respond to NATO moves in Finland, Sweden
  • NATO brands Russia most ‘significant and direct threat’

MADRID/KYIV: Russia pressed on with its offensive in eastern Ukraine on Thursday after NATO branded Moscow the biggest “direct threat” to Western security and agreed plans to modernize Kyiv’s beleaguered armed forces.
Ukrainian authorities said they were trying to evacuate residents from the frontline eastern city of Lysychansk, the focus of Russia’s attacks where about 15,000 people remained under relentless shelling.
“Fighting is going on all the time. The Russians are constantly on the offensive. There is no let-up,” regional Governor Serhiy Gaidai told Ukrainian television.
“Absolutely everything is being shelled.”

Ukrainian emergency service personnel help an injured local resident after Russian shelling in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on June 29, 2022. (AP Photo/George Ivanchenko) 


In the southern Kherson region, Ukrainian forces were fighting back with artillery strikes of their own, Oleskiy Arestovych, adviser to the Ukrainian president, said in a video posted online.
At a summit on Wednesday dominated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the geopolitical upheaval it has caused, NATO invited Sweden and Finland to join and pledged a seven-fold increase from 2023 in combat forces on high alert along its eastern flank.
In reaction, President Vladimir Putin said Russia would respond in kind if NATO set up infrastructure in Finland and Sweden after they join the US-led military alliance.
Putin was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying he could not rule out that tensions would emerge in Moscow’s relations with Helsinki and Stockholm over their joining NATO.
US President Joe Biden announced more land, sea and air force deployments across Europe from Spain in the west to Romania and Poland bordering Ukraine.
These included a permanent army headquarters with accompanying battalion in Poland — the first full-time US deployment on NATO’s eastern fringes.

“President Putin’s war against Ukraine has shattered peace in Europe and has created the biggest security crisis in Europe since the Second World War,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference.
“NATO has responded with strength and unity,” he said.
Britain said it would provide another 1 billion pounds ($1.2 billion) of military support to Ukraine, including air defense systems, uncrewed aerial vehicles and new electronic warfare equipment.

’Fighting everywhere’
As the 30 national NATO leaders were meeting in Madrid, Russian forces intensified attacks in Ukraine, including missile strikes and shelling on the southern Mykolaiv region close to front lines and the Black Sea.
The mayor of Mykolaiv city said a Russian missile had killed at least five people in a residential building there, while Moscow said its forces had hit what it called a training base for foreign mercenaries in the region.
There was relentless fighting around the hilltop city of Lysychansk, which Russian forces are trying to encircle as they try to capture the industrialized eastern Donbas region on behalf of separatist proxies. Donbas comprises Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.
A video clip aired on Russia’s RIA state news agency showed former US soldier Alexander Drueke, who was captured while fighting for Ukrainian forces.
“My combat experience here was that one mission on that one day,” said Drueke, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, referring to the day he was captured outside Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. “I didn’t fire a shot. I would hope that would play a factor in whatever sentence I do or don’t receive.”


President Volodymyr Zelensky once again told NATO that Ukrainian forces needed more weapons and money, and faster, to erode Russia’s huge edge in artillery and missile firepower, and said Moscow’s ambitions did not stop at Ukraine.
The Russian invasion that began on Feb. 24 has destroyed cities, killed thousands and sent millions fleeing. Russia says it is pursuing a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of dangerous nationalists. Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of an unprovoked, imperial-style land grab.

The top US intelligence official Avril Haines said on Wednesday the most likely near term scenario is a grinding conflict in which Moscow makes only incremental gains, but no breakthrough on its goal of taking most of Ukraine.

Full solidarity
In a nod to the precipitous deterioration in relations with Russia since the invasion, a NATO communique called Russia the “most significant and direct threat to the allies’ security,” having previously classified it as a “strategic partner.”
NATO issued a new Strategic Concept document, its first since 2010, that said a “strong independent Ukraine is vital for the stability of the Euro-Atlantic area.”
To that end, NATO agreed a long-term financial and military aid package to modernize Ukraine’s largely Soviet-era military.
“We stand in full solidarity with the government and the people of Ukraine in the heroic defense of their country,” the communique said.
Stoltenberg said NATO had agreed to put 300,000 troops on high readiness from 2023, up from 40,000 now, under a new force model to protect an area stretching from the Baltic to the Black seas.
NATO’s invitation to Sweden and Finland to join the alliance marks one of the most momentous shifts in European security in decades as Helsinki and Stockholm drop a tradition of neutrality in response to Russia’s invasion.


R&B superstar R. Kelly sentenced to 30 years in sex trafficking case

Updated 30 June 2022

R&B superstar R. Kelly sentenced to 30 years in sex trafficking case

  • Several accusers testified that Kelly subjected them to perverse and sadistic whims when they were underage
  • Kelly was “devastated” by the sentence and saddened by what he had heard, says his lawyer, Jennifer Bonjean
  • District Judge Ann Donnelly: “The horrors your victims endured. No price was too high to pay for your happiness.”

NEW YORK: Disgraced R&B superstar R. Kelly was sentenced Wednesday to 30 years in prison for using his fame to sexually abuse young fans, including some who were just children, in a systematic scheme that went on for decades.
Through tears and anger, several of Kelly’s accusers told a court in New York City, and the singer himself, that he had misled and preyed upon them.
“You made me do things that broke my spirit. I literally wished I would die because of how low you made me feel,” said one unnamed survivor, directly addressing Kelly, who kept his hands folded and his eyes downcast.
“Do you remember that?” she asked.
Kelly, 55, didn’t give a statement and showed no reaction on hearing his penalty, which also included a $100,000 fine. He has denied wrongdoing, and he plans to appeal his conviction.
The Grammy-winning, multiplatinum-selling songwriter was found guilty last year of racketeering and sex trafficking at a trial that gave voice to accusers who had previously wondered if their stories were being ignored because they were Black women.
Victims “are no longer the preyed-on individuals we once were,” another one of his accusers said at the sentencing.
“There wasn’t a day in my life, up until this moment, that I actually believed that the judicial system would come through for Black and brown girls,” she added outside court.
A third woman, sobbing and sniffling as she addressed the court, also said Kelly’s conviction renewed her faith in the legal system.
The woman said Kelly victimized her after she went to a concert when she was 17.
“I was afraid, naive and didn’t know how to handle the situation,” she said, so she didn’t speak up at the time.
“Silence,” she said, “is a very lonely place.”
Kelly’s lawyer, Jennifer Bonjean, said he was “devastated” by the sentence and saddened by what he had heard.
“He’s a human being. He feels what other people are feeling. But that doesn’t mean that he can accept responsibility in the way that the government would like him to and other people would like him to. Because he disagrees with the characterizations that have been made about him,” she said.
The sentence caps a slow-motion fall for Kelly, who is known for work including the 1996 hit “I Believe I Can Fly” and the cult classic “Trapped in the Closet,” a multipart tale of sexual betrayal and intrigue.
He was adored by legions of fans and sold millions of albums even after allegations about his abuse of young girls began circulating publicly in the 1990s. He beat child pornography charges in Chicago in 2008, when a jury acquitted him.
Widespread outrage over Kelly’s sexual misconduct didn’t emerge until the #MeToo reckoning, reaching a crescendo after the release of the documentary “Surviving R. Kelly.”
“I hope this sentencing serves as its own testimony that it doesn’t matter how powerful, rich or famous your abuser may be or how small they make you feel — justice only hears the truth,” Brooklyn US Attorney Breon Peace said Wednesday.
A Brooklyn federal court jury convicted the singer, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, after hearing that he used his entourage of managers and aides to meet girls and keep them obedient, an operation that prosecutors said amounted to a criminal enterprise.
Several accusers testified that Kelly subjected them to perverse and sadistic whims when they were underage.
The accusers alleged they were ordered to sign nondisclosure forms and were subjected to threats and punishments such as violent spankings if they broke what one referred to as “Rob’s rules.”
Some said they believed the videotapes he shot of them having sex would be used against them if they exposed what was happening.
According to testimony, Kelly gave several accusers herpes without disclosing he had an STD, coerced a teenage boy to join him for sex with a naked girl who emerged from underneath a boxing ring in his garage, and shot a shaming video that showed one victim smearing feces on her face as punishment for breaking his rules.
“The horrors your victims endured,” US District Judge Ann Donnelly said as she sentenced him. “No price was too high to pay for your happiness.”
Lizzette Martinez was a 17-year-old aspiring singer when she met Kelly at a Florida mall. She was promised mentorship but quickly ended up “a sex slave,” she said Wednesday outside court.
Asked whether Kelly’s 30-year sentence was sufficient punishment, she paused before answering.
“I, personally, don’t think it’s enough,” she said, “but I’m pleased with it.”
At the trial, evidence also was presented about a fraudulent marriage scheme hatched to protect Kelly after he feared he had impregnated R&B phenom Aaliyah in 1994 when she was just 15. Witnesses said they were married in matching jogging suits using a license falsely listing her age as 18; he was 27 at the time.
Aaliyah worked with Kelly, who wrote and produced her 1994 debut album, “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number.” She died in a plane crash in 2001 at age 22.
Kelly didn’t testify at his trial, but his then-lawyers portrayed his accusers as girlfriends and groupies who weren’t forced to do anything against their will and stayed with him because they enjoyed the perks of his lifestyle.
His current lawyers had argued he should get no more than 10 years in prison because he had a traumatic childhood “involving severe, prolonged childhood sexual abuse, poverty, and violence.”
As an adult with “literacy deficiencies,” the star was “repeatedly defrauded and financially abused, often by the people he paid to protect him,” his lawyers said.
The Associated Press does not name people who say they have been sexually assaulted or abused, unless they come forward publicly, as Martinez has. Several women who spoke at Kelly’s sentencing were identified only by first names or pseudonyms.
Kelly has been jailed without bail since in 2019. He still faces child pornography and obstruction-of-justice charges in Chicago, where a trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 15.